09/26/2005: "Reader Responds to Gordy Column"
Just got back in town after a month abroad, so I apologize in being a week or so late in answering Gordy's column regarding affordable housing ( "Affordable Housing: Why does it cost so much?") but I would like to weigh in.
First, as an aside on Gordy's tongue-in-cheek regarding the "Bush Administration doing nothing." I wish that I had a few copies of the International Herald Tribune (owned by The New York Times) which we read in Europe to pass around. The Herald Tribune a) blamed Bush directly for Katrina (global warming and such), b) blamed Bush directly for the lack of National Guard response because of his "adventures" in Iraq, c) blamed Bush directly for the deaths and looting in New Orleans (bad dikes), d) implied he was racist (flooding targeted poor black neighborhoods), and e) of course, blamed him for not being compassionate enough. Almost no discussion regarding the infrastructure failures of the Governor, Mayor, Police and so on down the line, who of course, are all Democrats. Even had an Oliphant cartoon showing Bush dancing around the drowned body of a crippled black woman in a wheelchair. In contrast, the European papers, including the very left wing Manchester Guardian, who are used to reporting the earthquakes and tsunamis around the world which kill many multiples of non-Americans, were restrained and competent in their reporting. With friends like our own international editions, who needs enemies?
Sorry, I had to get that off my chest. Now on to affordable housing.
Of course, taxes increase the cost of housing, as do the cost and time requirements of regulations and the permitting process, and also the down zoning and "feel good" programs which severely reduce the available supply of land. Now that you have described the real world in which we have to operate, what do you expect us to do about it? Should we spend the next decade tilting at these windmills to the exclusion of building homes for our infrastructure workers?
Of course, the affordable housing group will seek to expedite the permitting process and make use of zoning upgrades for affordable housing in order to reduce costs. Would you prefer that we do not take advantage of these options and therefore build more expensive houses which would not be affordable for our infrastructure workers? We have a group which will be looking at speeding up both the permitting and the construction process and, perhaps we will be successful in creating models which will apply to all housing, not just our target group.
You discuss the "law of supply and demand" in the context of the rules, regulations and restrictions adopted in San Juan County, and I agree with your conclusion. However, your focus is extremely narrow when compared to the overwhelming demand created by the baby boomer generation, now retiring, and moving to the islands with real estate capital that is drowning the marketplace. Had you been able to waive a magic wand and remove all those onerous taxes and regulations, I believe it would have amounted to a minor blip in prices when compared to a 50% increase in population in the last 15 years and a 37% increase in real estate prices in the last year alone.
You have some misconceptions regarding taxes and costs. The houses and property will pay taxes at the same rate as any citizen. Those living in the houses will be the most productive members of our society, the teachers, EMTs, Public Works Engineers and Nurses. They will also be paying taxes, probably at a higher percentage rate than the retirees with their tax free municipal bond portfolios. As opposed to increasing demand for public services, these are the people who will be providing them. The bureaucracy that you fear will be one person, supported by Boards and committees of volunteers, one of the most cost-effective means of getting something done. We hope to build all the housing with island labor, including training for apprentices and, in the future, a modular building facility, also on the island. Hopefully we will actually increase employment and therefore the tax base.
Finally, one more comment from a letter to the editor by Al Hall, agreeing with Gordy's position and indicating that we should not worry about the problem because "service follows affluence." My response is perhaps, but at what cost? Service really follows the few who are affluent, not all the others those attempting to the keep family together on an hourly wage or on a fixed income. If increasing taxes is a problem for the non-affluent, then how about having them also pay $150 an hour for a plumber or electrician? Might that be the final straw that forces them off the island? Or how about the Narragansett Island "solution" of flying in their school teachers and other service workers each day? How many young parents could afford to pay for that alternative?